It is the strangest thing. Words are sounds, symbols and patterns of electrical energy inside brains. They are abstractions, generated from the shared world of our experience but not fundamentally dependent upon it. The words we use invoke the thoughts and concepts or images with which we think and understand the world we share. The conventional meanings or significance of words is a dynamic system undergoing constant recombinatory metamorphosis and growth. We are entrained to believe in the eternal significance and meaning of some words (like “love”, “freedom”, “life”) but we rarely acknowledge that not only are the meanings of those words deeply ambiguous, but they change from time to time, place to place, person to person.
The meanings of those words are not intrinsic to them. All meanings are definitions and those definitions are always dependent upon other definitions and so on, circularly and without anchor, closure or unambiguous certainty. The extent to which we are swept up by words and their associated bundles of interpreted or projected meanings has always struck me as bizzarre.
In the diverse, complex and contested social spaces of our experience, there must be something of a mandatory suspension of disbelief in the inevitability of difference. We all have our own specific interpretations and compound subjective matrices of comprehension in regards to both private and shared narratives. A majority of interpersonal turbulence, misunderstanding and conflict derives from the fact that we all possess slightly different perspectives on (or cross-sections through) a shared linguistic (and thus conceptual) vocabulary. Our shared social contexts allow us to free up a little mental processing power and effort by handing over some of our personal differences of interpretation to a shared suspension of effort and compression of meaning to ambiguous but relatively coherent or internally consistent logical networks, tribal contexts and narratives.
Wittgenstein identified this difference as the diverse internal, subjective games we might play when we speak of the same thing. When I say “football” or “peace”, your immediate (and to some extent – all subsequent) mental images and associated cluster of concepts or images is shaped by your experience, your expectations, the time and place in which you hear the word. It is a curious and mischievous (shared) mental world we inhabit that asserts universal truths through the interpretation and recycled significance of meanings that have no ultimate or provable anchor and certainty beyond a labyrinth of other words and meanings. It is not possible to lift yourself by your own bootstraps in this way.
The differences between the meanings and differences we bear provide useful entropy and momentum for evolving social and cultural contexts. Think deeply on this: the greatest human catastrophes and intertribal psychoses of conflict derive almost exclusively from those situations in which words and meanings are attributed with final and unchanging attributes and interpretations. Words and meanings evolve – it is where and when they do not that conflict becomes inevitable. It is also true that the excess entropy generated in attempting to lock down meanings and interpretations is an inevitability and consequence of a pathological desire for power and control.
This is why I think that this is a magnificent and puzzling, strange world of abstractions and resonant differences. Do we (or can we) understand these concepts the same way? No, and it is a good thing, too.